THE GRIM SMILE OF THE FIVE TOWNS
To my old and constant friend JOSEPH DAWSON a student profoundly versed in the human nature of the Five Towns
The Lion's Share Baby's Bath The Silent Brothers The Nineteenth Hat Vera's First Christmas Adventure The Murder of the Mandarin Vera's Second Christmas Adventure The Burglary News of the Engagement Beginning the New Year From One Generation to Another The Death of Simon Fuge In a New Bottle
THE LION'S SHARE
In the Five Towns the following history is related by those who know it as something side-splittingly funny—as one of the best jokes that ever occurred in a district devoted to jokes. And I, too, have hitherto regarded it as such. But upon my soul, now that I come to write it down, it strikes me as being, after all, a pretty grim tragedy. However, you shall judge, and laugh or cry as you please.
It began in the little house of Mrs Carpole, up at Bleakridge, on the hill between Bursley and Hanbridge. Mrs Carpole was the second Mrs Carpole, and her husband was dead. She had a stepson, Horace, and a son of her own, Sidney. Horace is the hero, or the villain, of the history. On the day when the unfortunate affair began he was nineteen years old, and a model youth. Not only was he getting on in business, not only did he give half his evenings to the study of the chemistry of pottery and the other half to various secretaryships in connection with the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel and Sunday-school, not only did he save money, not only was he a comfort to his stepmother and a sort of uncle to Sidney, not only was he an early riser, a total abstainer, a non-smoker, and a good listener; but, in addition to the practice of these manifold and rare virtues, he found time, even at that tender age, to pay his tailor's bill promptly and to fold his trousers in the same crease every night—so that he always looked neat and dignified. Strange to say, he made no friends. Perhaps he was just a thought too perfect for a district like the Five Towns; a sin or so might have endeared him to the entire neighbourhood. Perhaps his loneliness was due to his imperfect sense of humour, or perhaps to the dull, unsmiling heaviness of his somewhat flat features.
Sidney was quite a different story. Sidney, to use his mother's phrase, was a little jockey. His years were then eight. Fair-haired and blue-eyed, as most little jockeys are, he had a smile and a scowl that were equally effective in tyrannizing over both his mother and Horace, and he was beloved by everybody. Women turned to look at him in the street. Unhappily, his health was not good. He was afflicted by a slight deafness, which, however, the doctor said he would grow out of; the doctor predicted for him a lusty manhood. In the meantime, he caught every disease that happened to be about, and nearly died of each one. His latest acquisition had been scarlet fever. Now one afternoon, after he had 'peeled' and his room had been disinfected, and he was beginning to walk again, Horace came home and decided that Sidney should be brought downstairs for tea as a treat, to celebrate his convalescence, and that he, Horace, would carry him downstairs. Mrs Carpole was delighted with the idea, and Sidney also, except that Sidney did not want to be carried downstairs—he wanted to walk down.
'I think it will be better for him to walk, Horace dear,' said Mrs Carpole, in her thin, plaintive voice. 'He can, quite well. And you know how clumsy you are. Supposing you were to fall!'
Horace, nevertheless, in pursuance of his programme of being uncle to Sidney, was determined to carry Sidney. And carry Sidney he did, despite warnings and kickings. At least he carried him as far as the turn in the steep stairs, at which point he fell, just as his stepmother had feared, and Sidney with him. The half-brothers arrived on the ground floor in company, but Horace, with his eleven stone two, was on top, and the poor suffering little convalescent lay moveless and insensible.
It took the doctor forty minutes to bring him to, and all the time the odour of grilled herrings, which formed part of the uneaten tea, made itself felt through the house like a Satanic comment on the spectacle of human life. The scene was dreadful at first. The agony then passed. There were no bruises on the boy, not a mark, and in a couple of hours he seemed to be perfectly himself. Horace breathed again, and thanked Heaven it was no worse. His gratitude to Heaven was, however, slightly premature, for in the black middle of the night poor Sidney was seized with excruciating pains in the head, and the doctor lost four hours' sleep. These pains returned at intervals of a few days, and naturally the child's convalescence was retarded. Then Horace said that Airs Carpole should take Sidney to Buxton for a fortnight, and he paid all the expenses of the trip out of his savings. He was desolated, utterly stricken; he said he should never forgive himself. Sidney improved, slowly.
After several months, during which Horace had given up all his limited spare time to the superintendence of the child's first steps in knowledge, Sidney was judged to be sufficiently strong to go to school, and it was arranged that he should attend the Endowed School at the Wedgwood Institution. Horace accompanied him thither on the opening day of the term—it was an inclement morning in January—and left the young delicate sprig, apparently joyous and content, to the care of his masters and the mercy of his companions. But Sidney came home for dinner weeping—weeping in spite of his new mortar-board cap, his new satchel, his new box of compasses, and his new books. His mother kept him at home in the afternoon, and by the evening another of those terrible attacks had supervened. The doctor and Horace and Mrs Carpole once more lost much precious sleep. The mysterious malady continued. School was out of the question.
And when Sidney took the air, in charge of his mother, everybody stopped to sympathize with him and to stroke his curls and call him a poor dear, and also to commiserate Mrs Carpole. As for Horace, Bursley tried to feel sorry for Horace, but it only succeeded in showing Horace that it was hiding a sentiment of indignation against him. Each friendly face as it passed Horace in the street said, without words, 'There goes the youth who probably ruined his young stepbrother's life. And through sheer obstinacy too! He dropped the little darling in spite of warnings and protests, and then fell on the top of him. Of course, he didn't do it on purpose, but—'
The doctor mentioned Greatorex of Manchester, the celebrated brain specialist. And Horace took Sidney to Manchester. They had to wait an hour and a quarter to see Greatorex, his well-known consulting-rooms in John Dalton Street being crowded with imperfect brains; but their turn came at last, and they found themselves in Greatorex's presence. Greatorex was a fat man, with the voice of a thin man, who seemed to spend the whole of his career in the care of his fingernails.
'Well, my little fellow,' said Greatorex, 'don't cry.' (For Sidney was already crying.) And then to Horace, in a curt tone: 'What is it?'
And Horace was obliged to humiliate himself and relate the accident in detail, together with all that had subsequently happened.
'Yes, yes, yes, yes!' Greatorex would punctuate the recital, and when tired of 'yes' he would say 'Hum, hum, hum, hum!'
When he had said 'hum' seventy-two times he suddenly remarked that his fee was three guineas, and told Horace to strengthen Sidney all he could, not to work him too hard, and to bring him back in a year's time.
Horace paid the money, Greatorex emitted a final 'hum', and then the stepbrothers were whisked out by an expeditious footman. The experience cost Horace over four pounds and the loss of a day's time. And the worst was that Sidney had a violent attack that very night.
School being impossible for him, Sidney had intermittent instruction from professors of both sexes at home. But he learnt practically nothing except the banjo. Horace had to buy him a banjo: it cost the best part of a ten-pound note; still, Horace could do no less. Sidney's stature grew rapidly; his general health certainly improved, yet not completely; he always had a fragile, interesting air. Moreover, his deafness did not disappear: there were occasions when it was extremely pronounced. And he was never quite safe from these attacks in the head. He spent a month or six weeks each year in the expensive bracing atmosphere of some seaside resort, and altogether he was decidedly a heavy drain on Horace's resources. People were aware of this, and they said that Horace ought to be happy that he was in a position to spend money freely on his poor brother. Had not the doctor predicted, before the catastrophe due to Horace's culpable negligence, that Sidney would grow into a strong man, and that his deafness would leave him? The truth was, one never knew the end of those accidents in infancy! Further, was not Sidney's sad condition slowly killing his mother? It was whispered about that, since the disaster, Sidney had not been QUITE sound mentally. Was not the mere suspicion of this enough to kill any mother?
And, as a fact, Mrs Carpole did die. She died of quinsy, doubtless aggravated by Sidney's sad condition.
Not long afterwards Horace came into a small fortune from his maternal grandfather. But poor Sidney did not come into any fortune, and people somehow illogically inferred that Horace had not behaved quite nicely in coming into a fortune while his suffering invalid brother, whom he had so deeply harmed, came into nothing. Even Horace had compunctions due to the visitations of a similar idea. And with part of the fortune he bought a house with a large garden up at Toft End, the highest hill of the hilly Five Towns, so that Sidney might have the benefit of the air. He also engaged a housekeeper and servants. With the remainder of the fortune he obtained a partnership in the firm of earthenware manufacturers for whom he had been acting as highly-paid manager.
Sidney reached the age of eighteen, and was most effective to look upon, his bright hair being still curly, and his eyes a wondrous blue, and his form elegant; and the question of Sidney's future arose. His health was steadily on the up grade. The deafness had quite disappeared. He had inclinations towards art, and had already amused himself by painting some beautiful vases. So it was settled that he should enter Horace's works on the art side, with a view to becoming, ultimately, art director. Horace gave him three pounds a week, in order that he might feel perfectly independent, and, to the same end, Sidney paid Horace seven-and-sixpence a week for board and lodging. But the change of life upset the youth's health again. After only two visits to the works he had a grave recurrence of the head-attacks, and he was solemnly exhorted not to apply himself too closely to business. He therefore took several half-holidays a week, and sometimes a whole one. And even when he put in one of his full days he would arrive at the works three hours after Horace, and restore the balance by leaving an hour earlier. The entire town watched over him as a mother watches over a son. The notion that he was not QUITE right in the pate gradually died away, and everybody was thankful for that, though it was feared an untimely grave might be his portion.
She was a nice girl: the nicest girl that Horace had ever met with, because her charming niceness included a faculty of being really serious about serious things—and yet she could be deliciously gay. In short, she was a revelation to Horace. And her name was Ella, and she had come one year to spend some weeks with Mrs Penkethman, the widowed headmistress of the Wesleyan Day School, who was her cousin. Mrs Penkethman and Ella had been holidaying together in France; their arrival in Bursley naturally coincided with the reopening of the school in August for the autumn term.
Now at this period Horace was rather lonely in his large house and garden; for Sidney, in pursuit of health, had gone off on a six weeks' cruise round Holland, Finland, Norway, and Sweden, in one of those Atlantic liners which, translated like Enoch without dying, become in their old age 'steam-yachts', with fine names apt to lead to confusion with the private yacht of the Tsar of Russia. Horace had offered him the trip, and Horace was also paying his weekly salary as usual.
So Horace, who had always been friendly with Mrs Penkethman, grew now more than ever friendly with Mrs Penkethman. And Mrs Penkethman and Ella were inseparable. The few aristocrats left in Bursley in September remarked that Horace knew what he was about, as it was notorious that Ella had the most solid expectations. But as a matter of fact Horace did not know what he was about, and he never once thought of Ella's expectations. He was simply, as they say in Bursley, knocked silly by Ella. He honestly imagined her to be the wonderfullest woman on the earth's surface, with her dark eyes and her expressive sympathetic gestures, and her alterations of seriousness and gaiety. It astounded him that a girl of twenty-one could have thought so deeply upon life as she had. The inexplicable thing was that she looked up to HIM. She evidently admired HIM. He wanted to tell her that she was quite wrong about him, much too kind in her estimate of him—that really he was a very ordinary man indeed. But another instinct prevented him from thus undeceiving her.
And one Saturday afternoon, the season being late September, Horace actually got those two women up to tea in his house and garden. He had not dared to dream of such bliss. He had hesitated long before asking them to come, and in asking them he had blushed and stammered: the invitation had seemed to him to savour of audacity. But, bless you! they had accepted with apparent ecstasy. They gave him to think that they had genuinely wanted to come. And they came extra-specially dressed—visions, lilies of the field. And as the day was quite warm, tea was served in the garden, and everybody admired the view; and there was no restraint, no awkwardness. In particular Ella talked with an ease and a distinction that enchanted Horace, and almost made him talk with ease and distinction too. He said to himself that, seeing he had only known her a month, he was getting on amazingly. He said to himself that his good luck passed belief.
Then there was a sound of cab-wheels on the other side of the garden-wall, and presently Horace heard the housekeeper complimenting Sidney on his good looks, and Sidney asking the housekeeper to lend him three shillings to pay the cabman. The golden youth had returned without the slightest warning from his cruise. The tea trio, at the lower end of the garden, saw him standing in the porch, tanned, curly, graceful, and young. Horace half rose, and then sat down again. Ella stared hard.
'That must be your brother,' she said.
'Yes, that's Sid,' Horace answered; and then, calling out loudly: 'Come down here, Sid, and tell them to bring another cup and saucer.'
'Right you are, old man,' Sidney shouted. 'You see I'm back. What! Mrs Penkethman, is that you?' He came down the central path of the garden like a Narcissus.
'He DOES look delicate,' said Ella under her breath to Horace. Tears came to her eyes.
Naturally Ella knew all about Sidney. She enjoyed the entire confidence of Mrs Penkethman, and what Mrs Penkethman didn't know of the private history of the upper classes in Bursley did not amount to very much.
These were nearly the last words that Ella spoke to Horace that afternoon. The introduction was made, and Sidney slipped into the party as comfortably as he slipped into everything, like a candle slipping into a socket. But nevertheless Ella talked no more. She just stared at Sidney, and listened to him. Horace was proud that Sidney had made such an impression on her; he was glad that she showed no aversion to Sidney, because, in the event of Horace's marriage, where would Sidney live, if not with Horace and Horace's wife? Still, he could have wished that Ella would continue to display her conversational powers.
Presently, Sidney lighted a cigarette. He was of those young men whose delicate mouths seem to have been fashioned for the nice conduct of a cigarette. And he had a way of blowing out the smoke that secretly ravished every feminine beholder. Horace still held to his boyhood's principles; but he envied Sidney a little.
At the conclusion of the festivity these two women naturally could not be permitted to walk home alone. And, naturally, also, the four could not walk abreast on the narrow pavements. Horace went first with Mrs Penkethman. He was mad with anxiety to appropriate Ella, but he dared not. It would not have been quite correct; it would have been, as they say in Bursley, too thick. Besides, there was the question of age. Horace was over thirty, and Mrs Penkethman was also—over thirty; whereas Sidney was twenty-one, and so was Ella. Hence Sidney walked behind with Ella, and the procession started in silence. Horace did not look round too often—that would not have been quite proper—but whenever he did look round the other couple had lagged farther and farther behind, and Ella seemed perfectly to have recovered her speech. At length he looked round, and lo! they had not turned the last corner; and they arrived at Mrs Penkethman's cottage at Hillport a quarter of an hour after their elders.
The wedding cost Horace a large sum of money. You see, he could not do less than behave handsomely by the bride, owing to his notorious admiration for her; and of course the bridegroom needed setting up. Horace practically furnished their home for them out of his own pocket; it was not to be expected that Sidney should have resources. Further, Sidney as a single man, paying seven-and-six a week for board and lodging, could no doubt struggle along upon three pounds weekly. But Sidney as a husband, with the nicest girl in the world to take care of, and house-rent to pay, could not possibly perform the same feat. Although he did no more work at the manufactory—Horace could not have been so unbrotherly as to demand it—Horace paid him eight pounds a week instead of three.
And the affair cost Horace a good deal besides money. But what could Horace do? He decidedly would not have wished to wreck the happiness of two young and beautiful lives, even had he possessed the power to do so. And he did not possess the power. Those two did not consult Horace before falling in love. They merely fell in love, and there was an end of it—and an end of Horace too! Horace had to suffer. He did suffer.
Perhaps it was for his highest welfare that other matters came to monopolize his mind. One sorrow drives out another. If you sit on a pin you are apt to forget that you have the toothache. The earthenware manufactory was not going well. Plenty of business was being done, but not at the right prices. Crushed between the upper and nether millstones of the McKinley Tariff and German competition, Horace, in company with other manufacturers, was breathing out his life's blood in the shape of capital. The truth was that he had never had enough capital. He had heavily mortgaged the house at Toft End in order to purchase his partners' shares in the business and have the whole undertaking to himself, and he profoundly regretted it. He needed every penny that he could collect; the strictest economy was necessary if he meant to survive the struggle. And here he was paying eight pounds a week to a personage purely ornamental, after having squandered hundreds in rendering that personage comfortable! The situation was dreadful.
You may ask, Why did he not explain the situation to Sidney? Well, partly because he was too kind, and partly because he was too proud, and partly because Sidney would not have understood. Horace fought on, keeping up a position in the town and hoping that miracles would occur.
Then Ella's expectations were realized. Sidney and she had some twenty thousand pounds to play with. And they played the most agreeable games. But not in Bursley. No. They left Horace in Bursley and went to Llandudno for a spell. Horace envied them, but he saw them off at the station as an elder brother should, and tipped the porters.
Certainly he was relieved of the formality of paying eight pounds a week to his brother. But this did not help him much. The sad fact was that 'things' (by which is meant fate, circumstances, credit, and so on) had gone too far. It was no longer a question of eight pounds a week; it was a question of final ruin.
Surely he might have borrowed money from Sidney? Sidney had no money; the money was Ella's, and Horace could not have brought himself to borrow money from a woman—from Ella, from a heavenly creature who always had a soothing sympathetic word for him. That would have been to take advantage of Ella. No, if you suggest such a thing, you do not know Horace.
I stated in the beginning that he had no faults. He was therefore absolutely honest. And he called his creditors together while he could yet pay them twenty shillings in the pound. It was a noble act, rare enough in the Five Towns and in other parts of England. But he received no praise for it. He had only done what every man in his position ought to do. If Horace had failed for ten times the sum that his debts actually did amount to, and then paid two shillings in the pound instead of twenty, he would have made a stir in the world and been looked up to as no ordinary man of business.
Having settled his affairs in this humdrum, idiotic manner, Horace took a third-class return to Llandudno. Sidney and Ella were staying at the hydro with the strange Welsh name, and he found Sidney lolling on the sunshiny beach in front of the hydro discoursing on the banjo to himself. When asked where his wife was, Sidney replied that she was lying down, and was obliged to rest as much as possible.
Horace, ashamed to trouble this domestic idyl, related his misfortunes as airily as he could.
And Sidney said he was awfully sorry, and had no notion how matters stood, and could he do anything for Horace? If so, Horace might—
'No,' said Horace. 'I'm all right. I've very fortunately got an excellent place as manager in a big new manufactory in Germany.' (This is how we deal with German competition in the Five Towns.)
'Germany?' cried Sidney.
'Yes,' said Horace; 'and I start the day after tomorrow.'
'Well,' said Sidney, 'at any rate you'll stay the night.'
'Thanks,' said Horace, 'you're very kind. I will.'
So they went into the hydro together, Sidney caressing his wonderful new pearl-inlaid banjo; and Horace talked in low tones to Ella as she lay on the sofa. He convinced Ella that his departure to Germany was the one thing he had desired all his life, because it was not good that Ella should be startled, shocked, or grieved.
They dined well.
But in the night Sidney had a recurrence of his old illness—a bad attack; and Horace sat up through the dark hours, fetched the doctor, and bought things at the chemist's. Towards morning Sidney was better. And Horace, standing near the bed, gazed at his stepbrother and tried in his stupid way to read the secrets beneath that curly hair. But he had no success. He caught himself calculating how much Sidney had cost him, at periods of his career when he could ill spare money; and, having caught himself, he was angry with himself for such baseness. At eight o'clock he ventured to knock at Ella's door and explain to her that Sidney had not been quite well. She had passed a peaceful night, for he had, of course, refrained from disturbing her.
He was not quite sure whether Sidney had meant him to stay at the hydro as his guest, so he demanded a bill, paid it, said good-bye, and left for Bonn-on-the-Rhine. He was very exhausted and sleepy. Happily the third-class carriages on the London & North-Western are pretty comfortable. Between Chester and Crewe he had quite a doze, and dreamed that he had married Ella after all, and that her twenty thousand pounds had put the earthenware business on a footing of magnificent and splendid security.
A few months later Horace's house and garden at Toft End were put up to auction by arrangement with his mortgagee and his trade-creditors. And Sidney was struck with the idea of buying the place. The impression was that it would go cheap. Sidney said it would be a pity to let the abode pass out of the family. Ella said that the idea of buying it was a charming one, because in the garden it was that she had first met her Sidney. So the place was duly bought, and Sidney and Ella went to live there.
Several years elapsed.
Then one day little Horace was informed that his uncle Horace, whom he had never seen, was coming to the house on a visit, and that he must be a good boy, and polite to his uncle, and all the usual sort of thing.
And in effect Horace the elder did arrive in the afternoon. He found no one to meet him at the station, or at the garden gate of the pleasaunce that had once been his, or even at the front door. A pert parlour-maid told him that her master and mistress were upstairs in the nursery, and that he was requested to go up. And he went up, and to be sure Sidney met him at the top of the stairs, banjo in hand, cigarette in mouth, smiling, easy and elegant as usual—not a trace of physical weakness in his face or form. And Horace was jocularly ushered into the nursery and introduced to his nephew. Ella had changed. She was no longer slim, and no longer gay and serious by turns. She narrowly missed being stout, and she was continuously gay, like Sidney. The child was also gay. Everybody was glad to see Horace, but nobody seemed deeply interested in Horace's affairs. As a fact he had done rather well in Germany, and had now come back to England in order to assume a working partnership in a small potting concern at Hanbridge. He was virtually beginning life afresh. But what concerned Sidney and Ella was themselves and their offspring. They talked incessantly about the infinitesimal details of their daily existence, and the alterations which they had made, or meant to make, in the house and garden. And occasionally Sidney thrummed a tune on the banjo to amuse the infant. Horace had expected them to be curious about Germany and his life in Germany. But not a bit! He might have come in from the next street and left them only yesterday, for all the curiosity they exhibited.
'Shall we go down to the drawing-room and have tea, eh?' said Ella.
'Yes, let's go and kill the fatted calf,' said Sidney.
And strangely enough, inexplicably enough, Horace did feel like a prodigal.
Sidney went off with his precious banjo, and Ella picked up sundry belongings without which she never travelled about the house.
'You carry me down-stairs, unky?' the little nephew suggested, with an appealing glance at his new uncle. 'No,' said Horace, 'I'm dashed if I do!'
Mrs Blackshaw had a baby. It would be an exaggeration to say that the baby interested the entire town, Bursley being an ancient, blase sort of borough of some thirty thousand inhabitants. Babies, in fact, arrived in Bursley at the rate of more than a thousand every year. Nevertheless, a few weeks after the advent of Mrs Blackshaw's baby, when the medical officer of health reported to the Town Council that the births for the month amounted to ninety-five, and that the birth-rate of Bursley compared favourably with the birth-rates of the sister towns, Hanbridge, Knype, Longshaw, and Turnhill—when the medical officer read these memorable words at the monthly meeting of the Council, and the Staffordshire Signal reported them, and Mrs Blackshaw perused them, a blush of pride spread over Mrs Blackshaw's face, and she picked up the baby's left foot and gave it a little peck of a kiss. She could not help feeling that the real solid foundation of that formidable and magnificent output of babies was her baby. She could not help feeling that she had done something for the town—had caught the public eye.
As for the baby, except that it was decidedly superior to the average infant in external appearance and pleasantness of disposition, it was, in all essential characteristics, a typical baby—that is to say, it was purely sensuous and it lived the life of the senses. It was utterly selfish. It never thought of anyone but itself. It honestly imagined itself to be the centre of the created universe. It was convinced that the rest of the universe had been brought into existence solely for the convenience and pleasure of it—the baby. When it wanted anything it made no secret of the fact, and it was always utterly unscrupulous in trying to get what it wanted. If it could have obtained the moon it would have upset all the astronomers of Europe and made Whitaker's Almanack unsalable without a pang. It had no god but its stomach. It never bothered its head about higher things. It was a bully and a coward, and it treated women as beings of a lower order than men. In a word, it was that ideal creature, sung of the poets, from which we gradually sink and fall away as we grow older.
At the age of six months it had quite a lot of hair, and a charming rosy expanse at the back of its neck, caused through lying on its back in contemplation of its own importance. It didn't know the date of the Battle of Hastings, but it knew with the certainty of absolute knowledge that it was master of the house, and that the activity of the house revolved round it.
Now, the baby loved its bath. In any case its bath would have been an affair of immense and intricate pomp; but the fact that it loved its bath raised the interest and significance of the bath to the nth power. The bath took place at five o'clock in the evening, and it is not too much to say that the idea of the bath was immanent in the very atmosphere of the house. When you have an appointment with the dentist at five o'clock in the afternoon the idea of the appointment is immanent in your mind from the first moment of your awakening. Conceive that an appointment with the dentist implies heavenly joy instead of infernal pain, and you will have a notion of the daily state of Mrs Blackshaw and Emmie (the nurse) with regard to the baby's bath.
Even at ten in the morning Emmie would be keeping an eye on the kitchen fire, lest the cook might let it out. And shortly after noon Mrs Blackshaw would be keeping an eye on the thermometer in the bedroom where the bath occurred. From four o'clock onwards the clocks in the house were spied on and overlooked like suspected persons; but they were used to that, because the baby had his sterilized milk every two hours. I have at length allowed you to penetrate the secret of his sex.
And so at five o'clock precisely the august and exciting ceremony began in the best bedroom. A bright fire was burning (the month being December), and the carefully-shaded electric lights were also burning. A large bath-towel was spread in a convenient place on the floor, and on the towel were two chairs facing each other, and a table. On one chair was the bath, and on the other was Mrs Blackshaw with her sleeves rolled up, and on Mrs Blackshaw was another towel, and on that towel was Roger (the baby). On the table were zinc ointment, vaseline, scentless eau de Cologne, Castile soap, and a powder-puff.
Emmie having pretty nearly filled the bath with a combination of hot and cold waters, dropped the floating thermometer into it, and then added more waters until the thermometer indicated the precise temperature proper for a baby's bath. But you are not to imagine that Mrs Blackshaw trusted a mere thermometer. No. She put her arm in the water up to the elbow. She reckoned the sensitive skin near the elbow was worth forty thermometers.
Emmie was chiefly an audience. Mrs Blackshaw had engaged her as a nurse, but she could have taught a nigger-boy to do all that she allowed the nurse to do. During the bath Mrs Blackshaw and Emmie hated and scorned each other, despite their joy. Emmie was twice Mrs Blackshaw's age, besides being twice her weight, and she knew twice as much about babies as Mrs Blackshaw did. However, Mrs Blackshaw had the terrific advantage of being the mother of that particular infant, and she could always end an argument when she chose, and in her own favour. It was unjust, and Emmie felt it to be unjust; but this is not a world of justice.
Roger, though not at all precocious, was perfectly aware of the carefully-concealed hostility between his mother and his nurse, and often, with his usual unscrupulousness, he used it for his own ends. He was sitting upon his mother's knees toying with the edge of the bath, already tasting its delights in advance. Mrs Blackshaw undressed the upper half of him, and then she laid him on the flat of his back and undressed the lower half of him, but keeping some wisp of a garment round his equatorial regions. And then she washed his face with a sponge and the Castile soap, very gently, but not half gently enough for Emmie, nor half gently enough for Roger, for Roger looked upon this part of the business as insulting and superfluous. He breathed hard and kicked his feet nearly off.
'Yes, it's dreadful having our face washed, isn't it?' said Mrs Blackshaw, with her sleeves up, and her hair by this time down. 'We don't like it, do we? Yes, yes.'
Emmie grunted, without a sound, and yet Mrs Blackshaw heard her, and finished that face quickly and turned to the hands.
'Potato-gardens every day,' she said. 'Evzy day-day. Enough of that, Colonel!' (For, after all, she had plenty of spirit.) 'Fat little creases! Fat little creases! There! He likes that! There! Feet! Feet! Feet and legs! Then our back. And then WHUP we shall go into the bath! That's it. Kick! Kick your mother!'
And she turned him over.
'Incredible bungler!' said the eyes of the nurse. 'Can't she turn him over neater than that?'
'Harridan!' said the eyes of Mrs Blackshaw. 'I wouldn't let you bath him for twenty thousand pounds!'
Roger continued to breathe hard, as if his mother were a horse and he were rubbing her down.
'Now! Zoop! Whup!' cried his mother, and having deprived him of his final rag, she picked him up and sat him in the bath, and he was divinely happy, and so were the women. He appeared a gross little animal in the bath, all the tints of his flesh shimmering under the electric light. His chest was superb, but the rolled and creased bigness of his inordinate stomach was simply appalling, not to mention his great thighs and calves. The truth was, he had grown so that if he had been only a little bit bigger, he would have burst the bath. He resembled an old man who had been steadily eating too much for about forty years.
His two womenfolk now candidly and openly worshipped him, forgetting sectarian differences.
And he splashed. Oh! he splashed. You see, he had learnt how to splash, and he had certainly got an inkling that to splash was wicked and messy. So he splashed—in his mother's face, in Emmie's face, in the fire. He pretty well splashed the fire out. Ten minutes before, the bedroom had been tidy, a thing of beauty. It was now naught but a wild welter of towels, socks, binders—peninsulas of clothes nearly surrounded by water.
Finally his mother seized him again, and, rearing his little legs up out of the water, immersed the whole of his inflated torso beneath the surface.
'Hallo!' she exclaimed. 'Did the water run over his mouf? Did it?'
'Angels and ministers of grace defend us! How clumsy she is!' commented the eyes of Emmie.
'There! I fink that's about long enough for this kind of wevver,' said the mother.
'I should think it was! There's almost a crust of ice on the water now!' the nurse refrained from saying.
And Roger, full of regrets, was wrenched out of the bath. He had ceased breathing hard while in the water, but he began again immediately he emerged.
'We don't like our face wiped, do we?' said his mother on his behalf. 'We want to go back into that bath. We like it. It's more fun than anything that happens all day long! Eh? That old dandruff's coming up in fine style. It's a-peeling off like anything.'
And all the while she wiped him, patted eau de Cologne into him with the flat of her hand, and rubbed zinc ointment into him, and massaged him, and powdered him, and turned him over and over and over, till he was thoroughly well basted and cooked. And he kept on breathing hard.
Then he sneezed, amid general horror!
'I told you so!' the nurse didn't say, and she rushed to the bed where all the idol's beautiful, clean, aired things were lying safe from splashings, and handed a flannel shirt, about two inches in length, to Mrs Blackshaw. And Mrs Blackshaw rolled the left sleeve of it into a wad and stuck it over his arm, and his poor little vaccination marks were hidden from view till next morning. Roger protested.
'We don't like clothes, do we?' said his mother. 'We want to tumble back into our tub. We aren't much for clothes anyway. We'se a little Hottentot, aren't we?'
And she gradually covered him with one garment or another until there was nothing left of him but his head and his hands and feet. And she sat him up on her knees, so as to fasten his things behind. And then it might have been observed that he was no longer breathing hard, but giving vent to a sound between a laugh and a cry, while sucking his thumb and gazing round the room.
'That's our little affected cry that we start for our milk, isn't it?' his mother explained to him.
And he agreed that it was.
And before Emmie could fly across the room for the bottle, all ready and waiting, his mouth, in the shape of a perfect rectangle, had monopolized five-sixths of his face, and he was scarlet and bellowing with impatience.
He took the bottle like a tiger his prey, and seized his mother's hand that held the bottle, and he furiously pumped the milk into that insatiable gulf of a stomach. But he found time to gaze about the room too. A tear stood in each roving eye, caused by the effort of feeding.
'Yes, that's it,' said his mother. 'Now look round and see what's happening. Curiosity! Well, if you WILL bob your head, I can't help it.'
'Of course you can!' the nurse didn't say.
Then he put his finger into his mouth side by side with the bottle, and gagged himself, and choked, and gave a terrible—excuse the word—hiccough. After which he seemed to lose interest in the milk, and the pumping operations slackened and then ceased.
'Goosey!' whispered his mother, 'getting seepy? Is the sandman throwing sand in your eyes? Old Sandman at it? Sh—' ... He had gone.
Emmie took him. The women spoke in whispers. And Mrs Blackshaw, after a day spent in being a mother, reconstituted herself a wife, and began to beautify herself for her husband.
Yes, there was a Mr Blackshaw, and with Mr Blackshaw the tragedy of the bath commences. Mr Blackshaw was a very important young man. Indeed, it is within the mark to say that, next to his son, he was the most important young man in Bursley. For Mr Blackshaw was the manager of the newly opened Municipal Electricity Works. And the Municipal Electricity had created more excitement and interest than anything since the 1887 Jubilee, when an ox was roasted whole in the market-place and turned bad in the process. Had Bursley been a Swiss village, or a French country town, or a hamlet in Arizona, it would have had its electricity fifteen years ago, but being only a progressive English Borough, with an annual value of a hundred and fifty thousand pounds, it struggled on with gas till well into the twentieth century. Its great neighbour Hanbridge had become acquainted with electricity in the nineteenth century.
All the principal streets and squares, and every decent shop that Hanbridge competition had left standing, and many private houses, now lighted themselves by electricity, and the result was splendid and glaring and coldly yellow. Mr. Blackshaw developed into the hero of the hour. People looked at him in the street as though he had been the discoverer and original maker of electricity. And if the manager of the gasworks had not already committed murder, it was because the manager of the gasworks had a right sense of what was due to his position as vicar's churchwarden at St Peter's Church.
But greatness has its penalties. And the chief penalty of Mr Blackshaw's greatness was that he could not see Roger have his nightly bath. It was impossible for Mr Blackshaw to quit his arduous and responsible post before seven o'clock in the evening. Later on, when things were going more smoothly, he might be able to get away; but then, later on, his son's bath would not be so amusing and agreeable as it then, by all reports, was. The baby was, of course, bathed on Saturday nights, but Sunday afternoon and evening Mr Blackshaw was obliged to spend with his invalid mother at Longshaw. It was on the sole condition of his weekly presence thus in her house that she had consented not to live with the married pair. And so Mr Blackshaw could not witness Roger's bath. He adored Roger. He understood Roger. He weighed, nursed, and fed Roger. He was 'up' in all the newest theories of infant rearing. In short, Roger was his passion, and he knew everything of Roger except Roger's bath. And when his wife met him at the front door of a night at seven-thirty and launched instantly into a description of the wonders, delights, and excitations of Roger's latest bath, Mr Blackshaw was ready to tear his hair with disappointment and frustration.
'I suppose you couldn't put it off for a couple of hours one night, May?' he suggested at supper on the evening of the particular bath described above.
'Sidney!' protested Mrs Blackshaw, pained.
Mr Blackshaw felt that he had gone too far, and there was a silence.
'Well!' said Mr Blackshaw at length, 'I have just made up my mind. I'm going to see that Kid's bath, and, what's more, I'm going to see it tomorrow. I don't care what happens.'
'But how shall you manage to get away, darling?'
'You will telephone me about a quarter of an hour before you're ready to begin, and I'll pretend it's something very urgent, and scoot off.'
'Well, that will be lovely, darling!' said Mrs Blackshaw. 'I WOULD like you to see him in the bath, just once! He looks so—'
And so on.
The next day, Mr Blackshaw, that fearsome autocrat of the Municipal Electricity Works, was saying to himself all day that at five o'clock he was going to assist at the spectacle of his wonderful son's bath. The prospect inspired him. So much so that every hand on the place was doing its utmost in fear and trembling, and the whole affair was running with the precision and smoothness of a watch.
From four o'clock onwards, Mr Blackshaw, in the solemn, illuminated privacy of the managerial office, safe behind glass partitions, could no more contain his excitement. He hovered in front of the telephone, waiting for it to ring. Then, at a quarter to five, just when he felt he couldn't stand it any longer, and was about to ring up his wife instead of waiting for her to ring him up, he saw a burly shadow behind the glass door, and gave a desolate sigh. That shadow could only be thrown by one person, and that person was his Worship the Mayor of Bursley. His Worship entered the private office with mayoral assurance, pulling in his wake a stout old lady whom he introduced as his aunt from Wolverhampton. And he calmly proposed that Mr Blackshaw should show the mayoral aunt over the new Electricity Works!
Mr Blackshaw was sick of showing people over the Works. Moreover, he naturally despised the Mayor. All permanent officials of municipalities thoroughly despise their mayors (up their sleeves). A mayor is here today and gone tomorrow, whereas a permanent official is permanent. A mayor knows nothing about anything except his chain and the rules of debate, and he is, further, a tedious and meddlesome person—in the opinion of permanent officials.
So Mr Blackshaw's fury at the inept appearance of the Mayor and the mayoral aunt at this critical juncture may be imagined. The worst of it was, he didn't know how to refuse the Mayor.
Then the telephone-bell rang.
'Excuse me,' said Mr Blackshaw, with admirably simulated politeness, going to the instrument. 'Are you there? Who is it?'
'It's me, darling,' came the thin voice of his wife far away at Bleakridge. 'The water's just getting hot. We're nearly ready. Can you come now?'
'By Jove! Wait a moment!' exclaimed Mr Blackshaw, and then turning to his visitors, 'Did you hear that?'
'No,' said the Mayor.
'All those three new dynamos that they've got at the Hanbridge Electricity Works have just broken down. I knew they would. I told them they would!'
'Dear, dear!' said the Mayor of Bursley, secretly delighted by this disaster to a disdainful rival. 'Why! They'll have the town in darkness. What are they going to do?'
'They want me to go over at once. But, of course, I can't. At least, I must give myself the pleasure of showing you and this lady over our Works, first.'
'Nothing of the kind, Mr Blackshaw!' said the Mayor. 'Go at once. Go at once. If Bursley can be of any assistance to Hanbridge in such a crisis, I shall be only too pleased. We will come tomorrow, won't we, auntie?'
Mr Blackshaw addressed the telephone.
'The Mayor is here, with a lady, and I was just about to show them over the Works, but his Worship insists that I come at once.'
'Certainly,' the Mayor put in pompously.
'Wonders will never cease,' came the thin voice of Mrs Blackshaw through the telephone. 'It's very nice of the old thing! What's his lady friend like?'
'Not like anything. Unique!' replied Mr Blackshaw.
'Young?' came the voice.
'Dates from the thirties,' said Mr Blackshaw. 'I'm coming.' And rang off.
'I didn't know there was any electric machinery as old as that,' said the mayoral aunt.
'We'll just look about us a bit,' the Mayor remarked. 'Don't lose a moment, Mr Blackshaw.'
And Mr Blackshaw hurried off, wondering vaguely how he should explain the lie when it was found out, but not caring much. After all, he could easily ascribe the episode to the trick of some practical joker.
He arrived at his commodious and electrically lit residence in the very nick of time, and full to overflowing with innocent paternal glee. Was he not about to see Roger's tub? Roger was just ready to be carried upstairs as Mr Blackshaw's latchkey turned in the door.
'Wait a sec!' cried Mr Blackshaw to his wife, who had the child in her arms, 'I'll carry him up.'
And he threw away his hat, stick, and overcoat and grabbed ecstatically at the infant. And he had got perhaps halfway up the stairs, when lo! the electric light went out. Every electric light in the house went out.
'Great Scott!' breathed Mr Blackshaw, aghast.
He pulled aside the blind of the window at the turn of the stairs, and peered forth. The street was as black as your hat, or nearly so.
'Great Scott!' he repeated. 'May, get candles.'
Something had evidently gone wrong at the Works. Just his luck! He had quitted the Works for a quarter of an hour, and the current had failed!
Of course, the entire house was instantly in an uproar, turned upside down, startled out of its life. But a few candles soon calmed its transports. And at length Mr Blackshaw gained the bedroom in safety, with the offspring of his desires comfortable in a shawl.
'Give him to me,' said May shortly. 'I suppose you'll have to go back to the Works at once?'
Mr Blackshaw paused, and then nerved himself; but while he was pausing, May, glancing at the two feeble candles, remarked: 'It's very tiresome. I'm sure I shan't be able to see properly.'
'No!' almost shouted Mr Blackshaw. 'I'll watch this kid have his bath or I'll die for it! I don't care if all the Five Towns are in darkness. I don't care if the Mayor's aunt has got caught in a dynamo and is suffering horrible tortures. I've come to see this bath business, and dashed if I don't see it!'
'Well, don't stand between the bath and the fire, dearest,' said May coldly.
Meanwhile, Emmie, having pretty nearly filled the bath with a combination of hot and cold waters, dropped the floating thermometer into it, and then added more waters until the thermometer indicated the precise temperature proper for a baby's bath. But you are not to imagine that Mrs Blackshaw trusted a thermometer—
She did not, however, thrust her bared arm into the water this time. No! Roger, who never cried before his bath, was crying, was indubitably crying. And he cried louder and louder.
'Stand where he can't see you, dearest. He isn't used to you at bath-time,' said Mrs Blackshaw still coldly. 'Are you, my pet? There! There!'
Mr Blackshaw effaced himself, feeling a fool. But Roger continued to cry. He cried himself purple. He cried till the veins stood out on his forehead and his mouth was like a map of Australia. He cried himself into a monster of ugliness. Neither mother nor nurse could do anything with him at all.
'I think you've upset him, dearest,' said Mrs Blackshaw even more coldly. 'Hadn't you better go?'
'Well—' protested the father.
'I think you had better go,' said Mrs Blackshaw, adding no term of endearment, and visibly controlling herself with difficulty.
And Mr Blackshaw went. He had to go. He went out into the unelectric night. He headed for the Works, not because he cared twopence, at that moment, about the accident at the Works, whatever it was; but simply because the Works was the only place to go to. And even outside in the dark street he could hear the rousing accents of his progeny.
People were talking to each other as they groped about in the road, and either making jokes at the expense of the new Electricity Department, or frankly cursing it with true Five Towns directness of speech. And as Mr Blackshaw went down the hill into the town his heart was as black as the street itself with rage and disappointment. He had made his child cry!
Someone stopped him.
'Eh, Mester Blackshaw!' said a voice, and under the voice a hand struck a match to light a pipe. 'What's th' maning o' this eclipse as you'm treating us to?'
Mr Blackshaw looked right through the inquirer—a way he had when his brain was working hard. And he suddenly smiled by the light of the match.
'That child wasn't crying because I was there,' said Mr Blackshaw with solemn relief. 'Not at all! He was crying because he didn't understand the candles. He isn't used to candles, and they frightened him.'
And he began to hurry towards the Works.
At the same instant the electric light returned to Bursley. The current was resumed.
'That's better,' said Mr Blackshaw, sighing.
THE SILENT BROTHERS
John and Robert Hessian, brothers, bachelors, and dressed in mourning, sat together after supper in the parlour of their house at the bottom of Oldcastle Street, Bursley. Maggie, the middle-aged servant, was clearing the table.
'Leave the cloth and the coffee,' said John, the elder, 'Mr Liversage is coming in.'
'Yes, Mr John,' said Maggie.
'Slate, Maggie,' Robert ordered laconically, with a gesture towards the mantelpiece behind him.
'Yes, Mr Robert,' said Maggie.
She gave him a slate with slate-pencil attached, which hung on a nail near the mantlepiece.
Robert took the slate and wrote on it: 'What is Liversage coming about?'
And he pushed the slate across the table to John.
Whereupon John wrote on the slate: 'Don't know. He telephoned me he wanted to see us tonight.'
And he pushed back the slate to Robert.
This singular procedure was not in the least attributable to deafness on the part of the brothers; they were in the prime of life, aged forty-two and thirty-nine respectively, and in complete possession of all their faculties. It was due simply to the fact that they had quarrelled, and would not speak to each other. The history of their quarrel would be incredible were it not full of that ridiculous pathetic quality known as human nature, and did not similar things happen frequently in the manufacturing Midlands, where the general temperament is a fearful and strange compound of pride, obstinacy, unconquerableness, romance, and stupidity. Yes, stupidity.
No single word had passed between the brothers in that house for ten years. On the morning after the historical quarrel Robert had not replied when John spoke to him. 'Well,' said John's secret heart—and John's secret heart ought to have known better, as it was older than its brother heart—'I'll teach him a lesson. I won't speak until he does.' And Robert's secret heart had somehow divined this idiotic resolution, and had said: 'We shall see.' Maggie had been the first to notice the stubborn silence. Then their friends noticed it, especially Mr Liversage, the solicitor, their most intimate friend. But you are not to suppose that anybody protested very strongly. For John and Robert were not the kind of men with whom liberties may be taken; and, moreover, Bursley was slightly amused—at the beginning. It assumed the attitude of a disinterested spectator at a fight. It wondered who would win. Of course, it called both the brothers fools, yet in a tone somewhat sympathetic, because such a thing as had occurred to the Hessians might well occur to any man gifted with the true Bursley spirit. There is this to be said for a Bursley man: Having made his bed, he will lie on it, and he will not complain.
The Hessians suffered severely by their self-imposed dumbness, but they suffered like Stoics. Maggie also suffered, and Maggie would not stand it. Maggie it was who had invented the slate. Indeed, they had heard some plain truths from that stout, bustling woman. They had not yielded, but they had accepted the slate in order to minimize the inconvenience to Maggie, and afterwards they deigned to make use of it for their own purposes. As for friends—friends accustomed themselves to the status quo. There came a time when the spectacle of two men chattering to everybody else in a company, and not saying a word to each other, no longer appealed to Bursley's sense of humour. The silent scenes at which Maggie assisted every day did not, either, appeal to Maggie's sense of humour, because she had none. So the famous feud grew into a sort of elemental fact of Nature. It was tolerated as the weather is tolerated. The brothers acquired pride in it; even Bursley regarded it as an interesting municipal curiosity. The sole imperfection in a lovely and otherwise perfect quarrel was that John and Robert, being both employed at Roycroft's Majolica Manufactory, the one as works manager and the other as commercial traveller, were obliged to speak to each other occasionally in the way of business. Artistically, this was a pity, though they did speak very sternly and distantly. The partial truce necessitated by Roycroft's was confined strictly to Roycroft's. And when Robert was not on his journeys, these two tall, strong, dark, bearded men might often be seen of a night walking separately and doggedly down Oldcastle Street from the works, within five yards of each other.
And no one suggested the lunatic asylum. Such is the force of pride, of rank stupidity, and of habit.
The slate-scratching was scarcely over that evening when Mr Powell Liversage appeared. He was a golden-haired man, with a jolly face, lighter and shorter in structure than the two brothers. His friendship with them dated from school-days, and it had survived even the entrance of Liversage into a learned profession. Liversage, who, being a bachelor like the Hessians, had many unoccupied evenings, came to see the brothers regularly every Saturday night, and one or other of them dropped in upon him most Wednesdays; but this particular night was a Thursday.
'How do?' John greeted him succinctly between two puffs of a pipe.
'How do?' replied Liversage.
'How do, Pow?' Robert greeted him in turn, also between two puffs of a pipe.
And 'How do, little 'un?' replied Liversage.
A chair was indicated to him, and he sat down, and Robert poured out some coffee into a third cup which Maggie had brought. John pushed away the extra special of the Staffordshire Signal, which he had been reading.
'What's up these days?' John demanded.
'Well,' said Liversage, and both brothers noticed that he was rather ill at ease, instead of being humorous and lightly caustic as usual, 'the will's turned up.'
'The devil it has!' John exclaimed. 'When?'
And then, as there was a pause, Liversage added: 'Yes, my sons, the will's turned up.'
'But where, you cuckoo, sitting there like that?' asked Robert. 'Where?'
'It was in that registered letter addressed to your sister that the Post Office people wouldn't hand over until we'd taken out letters of administration.'
'Well, I'm dashed!' muttered John. 'Who'd have thought of that? You've got the will, then?'
The Hessians had an elder sister, Mrs Bott, widow of a colour merchant, and Mrs Bott had died suddenly three months ago, the night after a journey to Manchester. (Even at the funeral the brothers had scandalized the town by not speaking to each other.) Mrs Bott had wealth, wit, and wisdom, together with certain peculiarities, of which one was an excessive secrecy. It was known that she had made a will, because she had more than once notified the fact, in a tone suggestive of highly important issues, but the will had refused to be found. So Mr Liversage had been instructed to take out letters of administration of the estate, which, in the continued absence of the will, would be divided equally between the brothers. And twelve or thirteen thousand pounds may be compared to a financial beef-steak that cuts up very handsomely for two persons. The carving-knife was about to descend on its succulence, when, lo! the will!
'How came the will to be in the post?' asked Robert.
'The handwriting on the envelope was your sister's,' said Liversage. 'And the package was posted in Manchester. Very probably she had taken the will to Manchester to show it to a lawyer or something of that sort, and then she was afraid of losing it on the journey back, and so she sent it to herself by registered post. But before it arrived, of course, she was dead.'
'That wasn't a bad scheme of poor Mary Ann's!' John commented.
'It was just like her!' said Robert, speaking pointedly to Liversage. 'But what an odd thing!'
Now, both these men were, no doubt excusably, agonized by curiosity to learn the contents of the will. But would either of them be the first to express that curiosity? Never in this world! Not for the fortune itself! To do so would scarcely have been Bursleyish. It would certainly not have been Hessianlike. So Liversage was obliged at length to say—
'I reckon I'd better read you the will, eh?'
The brothers nodded.
'Mind you,' said Liversage, 'it's not my will. I've had nothing to do with it; so kindly keep your hair on. As a matter of fact, she must have drawn it up herself. It's not drawn properly at all, but it's witnessed all right, and it'll hold water, just as well as if the blooming Lord Chancellor had fixed it up for her in person.'
He produced the document and read, awkwardly and self-consciously—
'"This is my will. You are both of you extremely foolish, John and Robert, and I've often told you so. Nobody has ever understood, and nobody ever will understand, why you quarrelled like that over Annie Emery. You are punishing yourselves, but you are punishing her as well, and it isn't fair her waiting all these years. So I give all my estate, no matter what it is, to whichever of you marries Annie. And I hope this will teach you a lesson. You need it more than you need my money. But you must be married within a year of my death. And if the one that marries cares to give five thousand pounds or so to the other, of course there's nothing to prevent him. This is just a hint. And if you don't either of you marry Annie within a year, then I just leave everything I have to Miss Annie Emery (spinster), stationer and fancy-goods dealer, Duck Bank, Bursley. She deserves something for her disappointment, and she shall have it. Mr Liversage, solicitor, must kindly be my executor. And I commit my soul to God, hoping for a blessed resurrection. 20th January, 1896. Signed Mary Ann Bott, widow." As I told you, the witnessing is in order,' Liversage finished.
'Give it here,' said John shortly, and scanned the sheet of paper.
And Robert actually walked round the table and looked over his brother's shoulder—ample proof that he was terrifically moved.
'And do you mean to tell me that a will like that is good in law?' exclaimed John.
'Of course it's good in law!' Liversage replied. 'Legal phraseology is a useful thing, and it often saves trouble in the end; but it ain't indispensable, you know.'
'Humph!' was Robert's comment as he resumed his seat and relighted his pipe.
All three men were nervous. Each was afraid to speak, afraid even to meet the eyes of the other two. An unmajestic silence followed.
'Well, I'll be off, I think,' Liversage remarked at length with difficulty.
'I say,' Robert stopped him. 'Better not say anything about this to Miss—to Annie, eh?'
'I will say nothing,' agreed Liversage (infamously and unprofessionally concealing the fact that he had already said something).
And he departed.
The brothers sat in flustered meditation over the past and the future.
Ten years before, Annie Emery had been an orphan of twenty-three, bravely starting in business for herself amid the plaudits of the admiring town; and John had fallen in love with her courage and her sense and her feminine charm. But alas, as Ovid points out, how difficult it is for a woman to please only one man! Robert also had fallen in love with Annie. Each brother had accused the other of underhand and unbrotherly practices in the pursuit of Annie. Each was profoundly hurt by the accusations, and each, in the immense fatuity of his pride, had privately sworn to prove his innocence by having nothing more to do with Annie. Such is life! Such is man! Such is the terrible egoism of man! And thus it was that, for the sake of wounded pride, John and Robert not only did not speak to one another for ten years, but they spoilt at least one of their lives; and they behaved ignobly to Annie, who would certainly have married either one or the other of them.
At two o'clock in the morning John pulled a coin out of his pocket and made the gesture of tossing.
'Who shall go first!' he explained.
Robert had a queer sensation in his spine as his elder brother spoke to him for the first time in ten years. He wanted to reply vocally. He had a most imperious desire to reply vocally. But he could not. Something stronger even than the desire prevented his tongue from moving.
John tossed the coin—it was a sovereign—and covered it with his hands.
'Tail!' Robert murmured, somewhat hoarsely.
But it was head.
Then they went to bed.
The side door of Miss Emery's shop was in Brick Passage, and not in the main street, so that a man, even a man of commanding stature and formidable appearance, might by insinuating himself into Brick Street, off King Street, and then taking the passage from the quieter end, arrive at it without attracting too much attention. This course was adopted by John Hessian. From the moment when he quitted his own house that Friday evening in June he had been subject to the delusion that the collective eye of Bursley was upon him. As a matter of fact, the collective eye of Bursley is much too large and important to occupy itself exclusively with a single individual. Bursley is not a village, and let no one think it. Nevertheless, John was subject to the delusion.
The shop was shut, as he knew it would be. But the curtained window of the parlour, between the side-door and the small shuttered side-window of the shop, gave a strange suggestion of interesting virgin spotless domesticity within. John cast a fearful eye on the main thoroughfare. Nobody seemed to be passing. The chapel-keeper of the Wesleyan Chapel on the opposite side of Trafalgar Road was refreshing the massive Corinthian portico of that fane, and paying no regard whatever to the temple of Eros which Miss Emery's shop had suddenly become.
So John knocked.
'I am a fool!' his thought ran as he knocked.
Because he did not know what he was about. He had won the toss, and with it the right to approach Annie Emery before his brother. But what then? Well, he did desire to marry her, quite as much for herself as for his sister's fortune. But what then? How was he going to explain the tepidity, the desertion, the long sin against love of ten years? In short, how was he going to explain the inexplicable? He could decidedly do nothing that evening except make a blundering ass of himself. And how soon would Robert have the right to come along and say HIS say? That point had not been settled. Points so extremely delicate cannot be settled on a slate, and he had not dared to broach it viva voce to his younger brother. He had been too afraid of a rebuff.
He then hoped that Annie's servant would tell him that Annie was out.
Annie, however, took him at a disadvantage by opening the door herself.
'Well, MR HESSIAN!' she exclaimed, her face bursting into a swift and welcoming smile.
'I was just passing,' the donkey in him blundered forth. 'And I thought—'
However, in fifteen seconds he was on the domestic side of the sitting-room window, and seated in the antimacassared armchair between the fire-place and the piano, and Annie had taken his hat and told him that her servant was out for the evening.
'But I'm disturbing your supper, Miss Emery,' he said. Flurried though he was, he could not fail to notice the white embroidered cloth spread diagonally on the table, and the cold meat and the pastry and the glittering cutlery and crystal thereon.
'Not at all,' she replied. 'You haven't had supper yet, I expect?'
'No,' he said, not thinking.
'It will be nice of you to help me to eat mine,' said she.
'Oh! But really—'
But she got plates and things out of the cupboard below the bookcase—and there he was! She would take no refusal. It was wondrous.
'I'm awfully glad I came now,' his thought ran; I'm managing it rather well.'
His sole discomfort was that he could not invent a sufficiently ingenious explanation of his call. You can't tell a woman you've called to make love to her, and when your previous call happens to have been ten years ago, some kind of an explanation does seem to be demanded. Ultimately, as Annie was so very pleased to see him, so friendly, so feminine, so equal to the occasion, he decided to let his presence in her abode that night stand as one of those central facts in existence that need no explanation. And they went on talking and eating till the dusk deepened and Annie lit the gas and drew the blind.
He watched her on the sly as she moved about the room. He decided that she did not appear a day older. There was the same plump, erect figure, the same neatness, the same fair skin and fair hair, the same little nose, the same twinkle in the eye—only perhaps the twinkle in the eye was a trifle less cruel than it used to be. She was not a day older. (In this he was of course utterly mistaken; she was ten years older, she was thirty-three, with ten years of successful commercial experience behind her; she would never be twenty-three again. Still she was a most desirable woman, and a woman infinitely beyond his deserts.) Her air of general capability impressed him. And with that there was mingled a strange softness, a marvellous hint of a concealed wish to surrender.... Well, she made him feel big and masculine—in brief, a man.
He regretted the lost ten years. His present way of life seemed intolerable to him. The new heaven opened its gate and gave glimpses of paradise. After all, he felt himself well qualified for that paradise. He felt that he had all along been a woman's man, without knowing it.
'By Jove!' his thought ran. 'At this rate I might propose to her in a week or two.'
'Poor old Bobbie!'
A quarter of an hour later, in some miraculous manner, they were more intimate than they had ever been, much more intimate. He revised his estimate of the time that must elapse before he might propose to her. In another five minutes he was fighting hard against a mad impulse to propose to her on the spot. And then the fight was over, and he had lost. He proposed to her under the rose-coloured shade of the Welsbach light.
She drew away, as though shot.
And with the rapidity of lightning, in the silence which followed, he went back to his original criticism of himself, that he was a fool. Naturally she would request him to leave. She would accuse him of effrontery.
Her lips trembled. He prepared to rise.
'It's so sudden!' she said.
Bliss! Glory! Celestial joy! Her words were at least equivalent to an absolution of his effrontery! She would accept! She would accept! He jumped up and approached her. But she jumped up too and retreated. He was not to win his prize so easily.
'Please sit down,' she murmured. 'I must think it over,' she said, apparently mastering herself. 'Shall you be at chapel next Sunday morning?'
'Yes,' he answered.
'If I am there, and if I am wearing white roses in my hat, it will mean—' She dropped her eyes.
'Yes?' he queried.
And she nodded.
'And supposing you aren't there?'
'Then the Sunday after,' she said.
He thanked her in his Hessian style.
'I prefer that way of telling you,' she smiled demurely. 'It will avoid the necessity for another—so much—you understand?...'
'Quite so, quite so!' he agreed. 'I quite understand.'
'And if I DO see those roses,' he went on, 'I shall take upon myself to drop in for tea, may I?'
'In any case, you mustn't speak to me coming out of chapel, PLEASE.'
As he walked home down Oldcastle Street he said to himself that the age of miracles was not past; also that, after all, he was not so old as the tale of his years would mathematically indicate.
Her absence from chapel on the next Sunday disagreed with him. However, Robert was away nearly all the week, and he had the house to himself to dream in. It frequently happened to him to pass by Miss Emery's shop, but he caught no glimpse of her, and though he really was in serious need of writing-paper and envelopes, he dared not enter. Robert returned on the Friday.
On the morning of the second Sunday, John got up early, in order to cope with a new necktie that he had purchased in Hanbridge. Nevertheless he found Robert afoot before him, and Robert, by some unlucky chance, was wearing not merely a new necktie, but a new suit of clothes. They breakfasted in their usual august silence, and John gathered from a remark of Robert's to Maggie when she brought in the boots that Robert meant to go to chapel. Now, Robert, being a commercial traveller and therefore a bit of a caution, did not attend chapel with any remarkable assiduity. And John, in the privacy of his own mind, blamed him for having been so clumsy as to choose that particular morning for breaking the habits of a lifetime. Still, the presence of Robert in the pew could not prejudicially affect John, and so there was no genuine cause for gloominess.
After a time it became apparent that each was waiting for the other to go. John began to get annoyed. At last he made the plunge and went. Turning his head halfway up Oldcastle Street, opposite the mansion which is called 'Miss Peel's', he perceived Robert fifty yards behind. It was a glorious June day.
He blushed as he entered chapel. If he was nervous, it may be accorded to him as excuse that the happiness of his life depended on what he should see within the next few minutes. However, he felt pretty sure, though it was exciting all the same.
To reach the Hessian pew he was obliged to pass Miss Emery's. And it was empty! Robert arrived.
The organist finished the voluntary. The leading tenor of the choir put up the number of the first hymn. The minister ascended the staircase of the great mahogany pulpit, and prayed silently, and arranged his papers in the leaves of the hymn-book, and glanced about to see who was there and who was presumably still in bed, and coughed; and then Miss Annie Emery sailed in with that air of false calm which is worn by the experienced traveller who catches a train by the fifth of a second. The service commenced.
She was wearing white roses. There could be no mistake as to that. There were about a hundred and fifty-five white roses in the garden of her hat.
What a thrill ran through John's heart! He had won Annie, and he had won the fortune. Yes, he would give Robert the odd five thousand pounds. His state of mind might even lead him to make it guineas. He heard not a word of the sermon, and throughout the service he rose up and sat down several instants after the rest of the congregation, because he was so absent-minded.
After service he waited for everybody else to leave, in order not to break his promise to the divine Annie. So did Robert. This ill-timed rudeness on Robert's part somewhat retarded the growth of a young desire in John's heart to make friends with poor Bob. Then he got up and left, and Robert followed.
They dined in silence, John deciding that he would begin his overtures of friendship after he had seen Annie, and could tell Robert that he was formally engaged. The brothers ate little. They both improved their minds during their repast—John with the Christian Commonwealth, and Robert with the Saturday cricket edition of the Signal (I regret it).
Then, after pipes, they both went out for a walk, naturally not in the same direction. The magnificence of the weather filled them both with the joy of life. As for John, he went out for a walk simply because he could not contain himself within the house. He could not wait immovable till four-thirty, the hour at which he meant to call on Annie for tea and the betrothal kiss. Therefore he ascended to Hillport and wandered as far as Oldcastle, all in a silk hat and a frock-coat.
It was precisely half-past four as he turned, unassumingly, from Brick Street into Brick Passage, and so approached the side door of Annie Emery's. And his astonishment and anger were immense when he saw Robert, likewise in silk hat and frock-coat, penetrating into Brick Passage from the other end.
They met, and their inflamed spirits collided.
'What's the meaning of this?' John demanded, furious; and, simultaneously, Robert demanded: 'What in Hades are YOU doing here?'
Only Sunday and the fine clothes and the proximity to Annie prevented actual warfare.
'I'm calling on Annie,' said John.
'So am I,' said Robert.
'Well, you're too late,' said John.
'Oh, I'm too late, am I?' said Robert, with a disdainful laugh. Thanks!'
'I tell you you're too late,' said John. 'You may as well know at once that I've proposed to Annie and she's accepted me.'
'I like that! I like that!' said Robert.
'Don't shout!' said John.
'I'm not shouting,' said Robert. 'But you may as well know that you're mistaken, my boy. It's me that's proposed to Annie and been accepted. You must be off your chump.'
'When did you propose to her?' said John.
'On Friday, if you must know,' said Robert.
'And she accepted you at once?' said John.
'No. She said that if she was wearing white roses in her hat this morning at chapel, that would mean she accepted,' said Robert.
'Liar!' said John.
'I suppose you'll admit she WAS wearing white roses in her hat?' said Robert, controlling himself.
'Liar!' said John, and continued breathless: 'That was what she said to ME. She must have told you that white roses meant a refusal.'
'Oh no, she didn't!' said Robert, quailing secretly, but keeping up a formidable show of courage. 'You're an old fool!' he added vindictively.
They were both breathing hard, and staring hard at each other.
'Come away,' said John. 'Come away! We can't talk here. She may look out of the window.'
So they went away. They walked very quickly home, and, once in the parlour, they began to have it out. And, before they had done, the reading of cricket news on Sunday was as nothing compared to the desecrating iniquity which they committed. The scene was not such as can be decently recounted. But about six o'clock Maggie entered, and, at considerable personal risk, brought them back to a sense of what was due to their name, the town, and the day. She then stated that she would not remain in such a house, and she departed.
'But whatever made you do it, dearest?'
These words were addressed to Annie Emery on the glorious summer evening which closed that glorious summer day, and they were addressed to her by no other person than Powell Liversage. The pair were in the garden of the house in Trafalgar Road occupied by Mr Liversage and his mother, and they looked westwards over the distant ridge of Hillport, where the moon was setting.
'Whatever made me do it!' repeated Annie, and the twinkle in her eye had that charming cruelty which John had missed. 'Did they not deserve it? Of course, I can talk to you now with perfect freedom, can't I? Well, what do you THINK of it? Here for ten years neither one nor the other does more than recognize me in the street, and then all of a sudden they come down on me like that—simply because there's a question of money. I couldn't have believed men could be so stupid—no, I really couldn't! They're friends of yours, Powell, I know, but—however, that's no matter. But it was too ridiculously easy to lead them on! They'd swallow any flattery. I just did it to see what they'd do, and I think I arranged it pretty well. I quite expected they would call about the same time, and then shouldn't I have given them my mind! Unfortunately they met outside, and got very hot—I saw them from the bedroom window—and went away.'
'You mustn't forget, my dear girl,' said Liversage, 'that it was you they quarrelled about. I don't want to defend 'em for a minute, but it wasn't altogether the money that sent them to you; it was more that the money gave them an excuse for coming!'
'It was a very bad excuse, then!' said Annie.
'Agreed!' Liversage murmured.
The moon was extremely lovely and romantic against the distant spire of Hillport Church, and its effect on the couple was just what might have been anticipated.
'Perhaps I'm sorry,' Annie admitted at length, with a charming grimace.
'Oh! I don't think there's anything to be SORRY about,' said Liversage. 'But of course they'll think I've had a hand in it. You see, I've never breathed a word to them about—about my feelings towards you.'
'No. It would have been rather a delicate subject, you see, with them. And I'm sure they'll be staggered when they know that we got engaged last night. They'll certainly say I've—er—been after you for the—No, they won't. They're decent chaps, really; very decent.'
'Anyhow, you may be sure, dear,' said Annie stiffly, 'that I shan't rob them of their vile money! Nothing would induce me to touch it!'
'Of course not, dearest!' said Liversage—or, rather the finer part of him said it; the baser part somewhat regretted that vile twelve thousand or so. (I must be truthful.)
He took her hand again.
At the same moment old Mrs Liversage came hastening down the garden, and Liversage dropped the hand.
'Powell,' she said. 'Here's John Hessian, and he wants to see you!'
'The dickens!' exclaimed Liversage, glancing at Annie.
'I must go,' said Annie. 'I shall go by the fields. Good night, dear Mrs Liversage.'
'Wait ten seconds,' Liversage pleaded, 'and I'll be with you.' And he ran off.
John, haggard and undone, was awaiting him in the drawing-room.
'Pow,' said he, 'I've had a fearful row with Bob, and I can't possibly sleep in our house tonight. Don't talk to me. But let me have one of the beds in your spare room, will you? There's a good chap.'
'Why, of course, Johnnie,' said Liversage. 'Of course.'
'And I'll go right to bed now,' said John.
An hour later, after Powell Liversage had seen his affianced to her abode and returned home, and after his mother had gone to bed, there was a knock at the front door, and Liversage opened to Robert Hessian.
'Look here, Pow,' said Robert, whose condition was deplorable, 'I want to sleep here tonight. Do you mind? Fact is, I've had a devil of a shindy with Jack, and Maggie's run off, and, anyhow, I couldn't possibly stop in the same house with Jack tonight.'
'See here,' said Robert. 'I can't talk. Just let me have a bed in your spare room. I'm sure you mother won't mind.'
'Why, certainly,' said Liversage.
He lit a candle, escorted Robert upstairs, opened the door of the spare room, gave the candle to Robert, pushed him in, said 'Good night,' and shut the door.
What a night!
THE NINETEENTH HAT
A dramatic moment was about to arrive in the joint career of Stephen Cheswardine and Vera his wife. The motor-car stood by the side of the pavement of the Strand, Torquay, that resort of southern wealth and fashion. The chauffeur, Felix, had gone into the automobile shop to procure petrol. Mr Cheswardine looking longer than ever in his long coat, was pacing the busy footpath. Mrs Cheswardine, her beauty obscured behind a flowing brown veil, was lolling in the tonneau, very pleased to be in the tonneau, very pleased to be observed by all Torquay in the tonneau, very satisfied with her husband, and with the Napier car, and especially with Felix, now buying petrol. Suddenly Mrs Cheswardine perceived that next door but one to the automobile shop was a milliner's. She sat up and gazed. According to a card in the window an 'after-season sale' was in progress that June day at the milliner's. There were two rows of hats in the window, each hat plainly ticketed. Mrs Cheswardine descended from the car, crossed the pavement, and gave to the window the whole of her attention.
She sniffed at most of the hats. But one of them, of green straw, with a large curving green wing on either side of the crown, and a few odd bits of fluffiness here and there, pleased her. It was Parisian. She had been to Paris—once. An 'after-season' sale at a little shop in Torquay would not, perhaps, seem the most likely place in the world to obtain a chic hat; it is, moreover, a notorious fact that really chic hats cannot be got for less than three pounds, and this hat was marked ten shillings. Nevertheless, hats are most mysterious things. Their quality of being chic is more often the fruit of chance than of design, particularly in England. You never know when nor where you may light on a good hat. Vera considered that she had lighted on one.
'They're probably duck's feathers dyed,' she said to herself. 'But it's a darling of a hat and it will suit me to a T.'
As for the price, when once you have taken the ticket off a hat the secret of its price is gone forever. Many a hat less smart than this hat has been marked in Bond Street at ten guineas instead of ten shillings. Hats are like oil-paintings—they are worth what people will give for them.
So Vera approached her husband, and said, with an enchanting, innocent smile—
'Lend me half-a-sovereign, will you, doggie?'
She called him doggie in those days because he was a sort of dog-man, a sort of St Bernard, shaggy and big, with faithful eyes; and he enjoyed being called doggie.
But on this occasion he was not to be bewitched by the enchanting innocence of the smile nor by the endearing epithet. He refused to relax his features.
'You aren't going to buy another hat, are you?' he asked sternly, challengingly.
The smile disappeared from her face, and she pulled her slim young self together.
'Yes,' she replied harshly.
The battle was definitely engaged. You may inquire why a man financially capable of hiring a 20-24 h.p. Napier car, with a French chauffeur named Felix, for a week or more, should grudge his wife ten shillings for a hat. Well, you are to comprehend that it was not a question of ten shillings, it was a question of principle. Vera already had eighteen hats, and it had been clearly understood between them that no more money should be spent on attire for quite a long time. Vera was entirely in the wrong. She knew it, and he knew it. But she wanted just that hat.
And they were on their honeymoon, you know: which enormously intensified the poignancy of the drama. They had been married only six days; in three days more they were to return to the Five Towns, where Stephen was solidly established as an earthenware manufacturer. You who have been through them are aware what ticklish things honeymoons are, and how much depends on the tactfulness of the more tactful of the two parties. Stephen, thirteen years older than Vera, was the more tactful of the two parties. He had married a beautiful and elegant woman, with vast unexploited capacities for love in her heart. But he had married a capricious woman, and he knew it. So far he had yielded to her caprices, as well became him; but in the depths of his masculine mind he had his own private notion as to the identity of the person who should ultimately be master in their house, and he had decided only the previous night that when the next moment for being firm arrived, firm he would be.
And now the moment was upon him. It was their eyes that fought, silently, bitterly. There is a great deal of bitterness in true love.
Stephen perceived the affair broadly, in all its aspects. He was older and much more experienced than Vera, and therefore he was responsible for the domestic peace, and for her happiness, and for his own, and for appearances, and for various other things. He perceived the moral degradation which would be involved in an open quarrel during the honeymoon. He perceived the difficulties of a battle in the street, in such a select and prim street as the Strand, Torquay, where the very backbone of England's respectability goes shopping. He perceived Vera's vast ignorance of life. He perceived her charm, and her naughtiness, and all her defects. And he perceived, further, that, this being the first conflict of their married existence, it was of the highest importance that he should emerge from it the victor. To allow Vera to triumph would gravely menace their future tranquillity and multiply the difficulties which her adorable capriciousness would surely cause. He could not afford to let her win. It was his duty, not merely to himself but to her, to conquer. But, on the other hand, he had never fully tested her powers of sheer obstinacy, her willingness to sacrifice everything for the satisfaction of a whim; and he feared these powers. He had a dim suspicion that Vera was one of that innumerable class of charming persons who are perfectly delicious and perfectly sweet so long as they have precisely their own way—and no longer.
Vera perceived only two things. She perceived the hat—although her back was turned towards it—and she perceived the half-sovereign—although it was hidden in Stephen's pocket.
'But, my dear,' Stephen protested, 'you know—'
'Will you lend me half-a-sovereign?' Vera repeated, in a glacial tone. The madness of a desired hat had seized her. She was a changed Vera. She was not a loving woman, not a duteous young wife, nor a reasoning creature. She was an embodied instinct for hats.
'It was most distinctly agreed,' Stephen murmured, restraining his anger.
Just then Felix came out of the shop, followed by a procession of three men bearing cans of petrol. If Stephen was Napoleon and Vera Wellington, Felix was the Blucher of this deplorable altercation. Impossible to have a row—yes, a row—with your wife in the presence of your chauffeur, with his French ideas of chivalry.
'Will you lend me half-a-sovereign?' Vera reiterated, in the same glacial tone, not caring twopence for the presence of Felix.
And Stephen, by means of an interminable silver chain, drew his sovereign-case from the profundity of his hip-pocket; it was like drawing a bucket out of a well. And he gave Vera half-a-sovereign; and THAT was like knotting the rope for his own execution.
And while Felix and his three men poured gallons and gallons of petrol into a hole under the cushions of the tonneau, Stephen swallowed his wrath on the pavement, and Vera remained hidden in the shop. And the men were paid and went off, and Felix took his seat ready to start. And then Vera came out of the hat place, and the new green hat was on her head, and the old one in a bag in her pretty hands.
'What do you think of my new hat, Felix?' she smiled to the favoured chauffeur; 'I hope it pleases you.'
Felix said that it did.
In these days, chauffeurs are a great race and a privileged. They have usurped the position formerly held by military officers. Women fawn on them, take fancies to them, and spoil them. They can do no wrong in the eyes of the sex. Vera had taken a fancy to Felix. Perhaps it was because he had been in a cavalry regiment; perhaps it was merely the curve of his moustache. Who knows? And Felix treated her as only a Frenchman can treat a pretty woman, with a sort of daring humility, with worship—in short, with true Gallic appreciation. Vera much enjoyed Gallic appreciation. It ravished her to think that she was the light of poor Felix's existence, an unattainable star for him. Of course, Stephen didn't mind. That is to say, he didn't really mind.
The car rushed off in the direction of Exeter, homewards.
That day, by means of Felix's expert illegal driving, they got as far as Bath; and there were no breakdowns. The domestic atmosphere in the tonneau was slightly disturbed at the beginning of the run, but it soon improved. Indeed, after lunch Stephen grew positively bright and gay. At tea, which they took just outside Bristol, he actually went so far as to praise the hat. He said that it was a very becoming hat, and also that it was well worth the money. In a word, he signified to Vera that their first battle had been fought and that Vera had won, and that he meant to make the best of it and accept the situation.
Vera was naturally charmed, and when she was charmed she was charming. She said to herself that she had always known that she could manage a man. The recipe for managing a man was firmness coupled with charm. But there must be no half measures, no hesitations. She had conquered. She saw her future life stretching out before her like a beautiful vista. And Stephen was to be her slave, and she would have nothing to do but to give rein to her caprices, and charm Stephen when he happened to deserve it.
But the next morning the hat had vanished out of the bedroom of the exclusive hotel at Bath. Vera could not believe that it had vanished; but it had. It was not in the hat-box, nor on the couch, nor under the couch, nor perched on a knob of the bedstead, nor in any of the spots where it ought to have been. When she realized that as a fact it had vanished she was cross, and on inquiring from Stephen what trick he had played with her hat, she succeeded in conveying to Stephen that she was cross. Stephen was still in bed, comatose. The tone of his reply startled her.
'Look here, child,' he said, or rather snapped—he had never been snappish before—'since you took the confounded thing off last evening I haven't seen it and I haven't touched it, and I don't know where it is.'
'But you must—'
'I gave in to you about the hat,' Stephen continued to snap, 'though I knew I was a fool to do so, and I consider I behaved pretty pleasantly over it too. But I don't want any more scenes. If you've lost it, that's not my fault.'
Such speeches took Vera very much aback. And she, too, in her turn, now saw the dangers of a quarrel, and in this second altercation it was Stephen who won. He said he would not even mention the disappearance of the hat to the hotel manager. He was sure it must be in one of Vera's trunks. And in the end Vera performed that day's trip in another hat.
They reached the Five Towns much earlier than they had anticipated—before lunch on the ninth day, whereas the new servants in their new house at Bursley were only expecting them for dinner. So Stephen had the agreeable idea of stopping the car in front of the new Hotel Metropole at Hanbridge and lunching there. Precisely opposite this new and luxurious caravanserai (as they love to call it in the Five Towns) is the imposing garage and agency where Stephen had hired the Napier car. Felix said he would lunch hurriedly in order to transact certain business at the garage before taking them on to Bursley. After lunch, however, Vera caught him transacting business with a chambermaid in a corridor. Shocking though the revelation is, it needs to be said that Felix was kissing the chambermaid. The blow to Mrs Cheswardine was severe. She had imagined that Felix spent all his time in gazing up to her as an unattainable star.
She spoke to Stephen about it, in the accents of disillusion. 'What?' cried Stephen. 'Don't you know? They're engaged to be married. Her name is Mary Callear. She used to be parlourmaid at Uncle John's at Oldcastle. But hotels pay higher wages.'
Felix engaged to a parlourmaid! Felix, who had always seemed to Vera a gentleman in disguise! Yes, it was indeed a blow!
But balm awaited Vera at her new home in Bursley. A parcel, obviously containing a cardboard box, had arrived for Stephen. He opened it, and the lost hat was inside it. Stephen read a note, and explained that the hotel people at Bath had found it and forwarded it. He began to praise the hat anew. He made Vera put it on instantly, and seemed delighted. So much so that Vera went out to the porch to say good-bye to Felix in a most forgiving frame of mind. She forgave Felix for being engaged to the chambermaid.
And there was the chambermaid walking up the drive, quite calmly! Felix, also quite calmly, asked Vera to excuse him, and told the chambermaid to get into the car and sit beside him. He then informed Vera that he had to go with the car immediately to Oldcastle, and was taking Miss Callear with him for the run, this being Miss Callear's weekly afternoon off. Miss Callear had come to Bursley in the electric tram.
Vera shook with swift anger; not at Felix's information, but the patent fact that Mary Callear was wearing a hat which was the exact replica of the hat on Vera's own head. And Mary Callear was seated like a duchess in the car, while Vera stood on the gravel. And two of Vera's new servants were there to see that Vera was wearing a hat precisely equivalent to the hat of a chambermaid!
She went abruptly into the house and sought for Stephen—as with a sword. But Stephen was not discoverable. She ran to her elegant new bedroom and shut herself in. She understood the plot. She had plenty of wit. Stephen had concerted it with Felix. In spite of Stephen's allegations of innocence, the hat had been sent somewhere—probably to Brunt's at Hanbridge—to be copied at express speed, and Stephen had presented the copy to Felix, in order that Felix might present it to Mary Callear the chambermaid, and the meeting in the front garden had been deliberately arranged by that odious male, Stephen. Truly, she had not believed Stephen capable of such duplicity and cruelty.
She removed the hat, gazed at it, and then tore it to pieces and scattered the pieces on the carpet.
An hour later Stephen crept into the bedroom and beheld the fragments, and smiled.
'Stephen,' she exclaimed, 'you're a horrid, cruel brute.' 'I know I am,' said Stephen. 'You ought to have found that out long since.'
'I won't love you any more. It's all over,' she sobbed. But he just kissed her.
VERA'S FIRST CHRISTMAS ADVENTURE
Five days before Christmas, Cheswardine came home to his wife from a week's sojourn in London on business. Vera, in her quality of the best-dressed woman in Bursley, met him on the doorstep (or thereabouts) of their charming but childless home, attired in a teagown that would have ravished a far less impressionable male than her husband; while he, in his quality of a prosaic and flourishing earthenware manufacturer, pretended to take the teagown as a matter of course, and gave her the sober, solid kiss of a man who has been married six years and is getting used to it.
Still, the teagown had pleased him, and by certain secret symptoms Vera knew that it had pleased him. She hoped much from that teagown. She hoped that he had come home in a more pacific temper than he had shown when he left her, and that she would carry her point after all.
Now, naturally, when a husband in easy circumstances, the possessor of a pretty and pampered wife, spends a week in London and returns five days before Christmas, certain things are rightly and properly to be expected from him. It would need an astounding courage, an amazing lack of a sense of the amenity of conjugal existence in such a husband to enable him to disappoint such reasonable expectations. And Cheswardine, though capable of pulling the curb very tight on the caprices of his wife, was a highly decent fellow. He had no intention to disappoint; he knew his duty.
So that during afternoon tea with the teagown in a cosy corner of the great Chippendale drawing-room he began to unfasten a small wooden case which he had brought into the house in his own hand, opened it with considerable precaution, making a fine mess of packing-stuff on the carpet, and gradually drew to light a pair of vases of Venetian glass. He put them on the mantlepiece.
'There!' he said, proudly, and with a virtuous air.
They were obviously costly antique vases, exquisite in form, exquisite in the graduated tints of their pale blue and rose.
'Seventeenth century!' he said.
'They're very nice,' Vera agreed, with a show of enthusiasm. 'What are they for?'
'Your Christmas present,' Cheswardine explained, and added 'my dear!'
'Oh, Stephen!' she murmured.
A kiss on these occasions is only just, and Cheswardine had one.
'Duveens told me they were quite unique,' he said, modestly; 'and I believe 'em.'
You might imagine that a pair of Venetian vases of the seventeenth century, stated by Duveens to be unique, would have satisfied a woman who had a generous dress allowance and lacked absolutely nothing that was essential. But Vera was not satisfied. She was, on the contrary, profoundly disappointed. For the presence of those vases proved that she had not carried her point. They deprived her of hope. The unpleasantness before Cheswardine went to London had been more or less a propos of a Christmas present. Vera had seen in Bostock's vast emporium in the neighbouring town of Hanbridge, a music-stool in the style known as art nouveau, which had enslaved her fancy. She had taken her husband to see it, and it had not enslaved her husband's fancy in the slightest degree. It was made in light woods, and the woods were curved and twisted as though they had recently spent seven years in a purgatory for sinful trees. Here and there in the design onyx-stones had been set in the wood. The seat itself was beautifully soft. What captured Vera was chiefly the fact that it did not open at the top, as most elaborate music-stools do, but at either side. You pressed a button (onyx) and the panel fell down displaying your music in little compartments ready to hand; and the eastern moiety of the music-stool was for piano pieces, and the western moiety for songs. In short, it was the last word of music-stools; nothing could possibly be newer.